Opening blog salvo on the Assembly election…

So the Northern Ireland Assembly election has been brought forward by a year to 7th March. But As Pete has said, it is going to be very difficult to work out what the election will actually mean when all is done and dusted. El Blogador reckons there is two possible gains for the SDLP: explicitly one in Newry and Armagh (more in hope than expectation?), and another in a currently all unionist seat. Although strictly speaking, there is no such thing, the party could nick a seat from the Alliance candidate in Strangford. But the bigger fight will be on the Unionist side. The Hearts and Minds poll shows no deterioration from last year’s Westminster Election for the UUP, but decidedly uncomfortable deficits from November 2003!

Expect the DUP to sell the decommissioning of the IRA as their big thing. There are margins all over Northern Ireland to be squeezed ruthlessly, even if they yield relatively meagre results, especially compared to last year’s romp. David Ervine will surely struggle to keep his East Belfast toehold. And the UUP is not the constituency force it was even five years ago, when at least the contorversy between Trimble and Donaldson kept 600, 700, 700 delegates traipsing back and forth to Belfast for key internal votes. Nowadays, they can barely raise a few hundred.

In the end, if the DUP increases its vote and its representation, then few will look backwards to the murky detail surrounding the St Andrews Agreement. At this early stage they look invulnerable to any serious counter attack, since the pro Belfast Agreement UUP have little to attack them on. And the informal grouping around Bob McCartney seem unlikely to deliver much other than a symbolic bloody nose. In North Down his vote is highly loyal but also highly personal. But last time his running mate came nowhere.

In South Antrim, all eyes will be on David Ford who’s career was prematurely pronounced at an end last time out. Most times out, the Alliance’s secret weapon was cross community transfers. Will they hold up in March? Also it might be worth keeping an eye on the Greens for any spoiling affects. They have virtually no chance of taking a seat, but are keen to position themselves close to the space currently held by the Alliance Party.

Sinn Fein have fewer options to continue to squeeze SDLP voters. But there are a few places they will hope to pick up seats. Martin Meehan in South Antrim was unlucky not to make it last time in South Antrim, and some say that Dolores Kelly could struggle to hold for the SDLP in Lurgan. But in the end, it will come down to local scraps, and perhaps on whether the SDLP can put together a better campaign than the last few times out.

Sinn Fein may not roll much further forward but neither will it not drop back down its own Sysiphean hill. Expect targeted efforts to embarrass the SDLP, even if it means letting the odd seat go unionist.

The whip hand remains with the two main negotiating parties – formerly known as the ‘extremes’. It doesn’t help the ‘moderates’ either that we have yet another winter election! With or without a deal (which will most likely go down to the wire) they control the terms of reference for the campaign. And, it would seem, they have scooped the choice of a new political generation in Northern Ireland.

The best the two minor parties can do is to identify a viable core vote, and seek a platform on which to build for the future. Today, substantially, belongs to Ian Paisley’s DUP and Sinn Fein.